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My rug has been pissed on

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on August 30, 2010

A little while ago I wrote a little post titled Skeptics Gone Wild, in which I criticized the use of an argument, which I classified as an ad hominem, against Jenny McCarthy that goes like this:

Jenny McCarthy speaks of dangerous “toxins” in vaccines, yet she gets Botox shots, which include botulinum, one of the most toxic substances around, right on her face.

That post sparked a mini-war in the comments with Tom, of Dubito Ergo Sum, who disagreed with me (see comments on my Skeptics Gone Wild post). That mini war then spilled over on Twitter where we had a brief, so to speak, exchange of messages. I could post screen shots of the exchange but I’m not gonna waste time, as Tom has written quite an extensive entry in his blog about the whole thing, titled In which I piss on the ‘Dude’s rug.

Now these blogging “wars” tend to get longer and longer with each reply, so I will not go over Tom’s entry point by point but I will add some clarifications about the main points that he makes, in an effort to keep these entries as short as possible, and since I am not interested in conflict, but dialogue.

It appears to me that both myself, and Tom, have been affected by Phil Plait Don’t be a Dick talk, in different ways. I took Phil’s talk and turned it around on myself, and understood, and agreed with, what he was saying. Tom appears to have taken the opposite stance, the “hell no” stance that people like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins seem to favor. Which is fine I guess; what most of us are doing is highly personal and each of us will make decisions about how to go about it.

However, the more I read Tom’s replies, tweets and blog post, the more I agree with Phil’s talk, because I can see first hand how some of the points that he makes, and he does make some good points, are affected, at least in my eyes by the, dare-I-say arrogant, way in which he, at times, communicates them.

During our exchange, I have been referred to as: a self-proclaimed skeptic, poor Skepdude, a springboard, and apparently somehow I’ve led Tom to the pessimistic expectation that I would not approve his last comment on my blog, the only one of his comments that went to moderation for some weird reason, thank you WordPress, and wasn’t approved until later that day. Sarcasm is acceptable in debating I grant, but I must ask: how necessary is it when you have a good argument to make AND an audience that, presumably, understands logic? To me Tom’s reliance on sarcasm along the way means that he’s either getting personal satisfaction out of its use; or he thinks the audience witnessing our discussion will be more easily persuaded via cheap shots than a good argument, or that the sarcasm will make his real arguments more persuasive, or a combination, or some other reason I cannot think of.

So first, let us go over what sparked this whole thing specifically the personal attack on Jenny McCarthy: is it or isn’t it an ad hominem? to which my response is: Does that really matter much in relation to the overall message I was trying to convey? Even if I turn out to be wrong on my classification of it as an ad hominem, does the personal attack on Jenny McCarthy have any bearing on the arguments that she makes? I will refrain from repeating myself at this point. I will only direct the reader to my original entry and ask them to look at my tobacco example, then make up your own mind if adding the “Jenny shoots Botox on her face” personal attack is warranted or not, ad hominem or not!

Secondly, my position has been straw manned a little bit, I’d like to believe unintentionally. Never did I say, or imply I believe, in our exchange that in communicating to or with the public “we can ignore ethos and pathos, and argue on logos alone”, and if something I have said may have come across that way, well then I take this chance to publicly clarify that this is not what I stand for.

I may have been wrong in classifying the Jenny-Botox attack as an ad hominem (which I am not convinced of yet for the record), but my main point was that we should not allow ourselves to be sloppy thinkers, that we shouldn’t fail to cast a critical eye on our own arguments to ensure that we are not committing the same mistakes that we accuse the “other side” of committing, that the end does not justify the means so to speak.  How one jumps from that to arguing on logos only, I do not comprehend.

Of course, facts and statistics are dry and fail, on their own, to be very convincing to the general public; of course we need passion and the use of rhetoric, and emotions when discussing or debating these issues in public. I think that those are absolutely necessary to win in the court of public opinion, but that does not translate that therefore every rhetoric tactic is fair game, that every emotion is fair game, because I happen to believe, or to have come to the conclusion (whichever way you like to phrase it), that some don’t work as well as we think they do, at least from what I have heard psychologists say about human communication. But I do not intend to turn this into a “what’s the most effective way of communicating” thing, because I don’t think I can add anything besides personal experience to the debate, and we skeptics know how personal anecdotes can lead us astray.

The take home point here is that just because I am advocating against the use of ad hominems/personal attacks does not logically lead to the conclusion that therefore I am advocating for “arguing on logos” only. Are ridicule & sarcasm all there is for us to draw on? What about empathy? I don’t hear Tom making the case for expressing empathy anywhere in his defense of arguing with pathos.

The last point I want to make revolves about something Tom said in regards to the Ad Hominem. He maintains that if all you said is that Jenny is against toxins but she uses Botox, that would be an ad hominem, and we both seem to agree there. Then he also says that because we have other valid arguments to counter her toxins nonsense, the Botox thing no longer is an ad hominem, but it is demoted, so to speak, to a simple personal attack status. At least that’s how I understand his argument, I hope I’m not setting up a straw man here; I’d hate to do that, but my only comment is this: a logical fallacy is a logical fallacy, regardless if it is preceded, or immediately followed, by any number of valid arguments. In other words a rotten apple in a basket full of good apples, is still a rotten apple. Now, I am not a philosopher, and that may be a naive view, and I am willing to defer to the expertise of professional philosophers on this issue, but until then, this is what I think.

So, not being a philosopher by training, I have to say that I have but a layman’s understanding of the Ad Hominem. To my understanding it goes like this:

  1. Person makes claim X
  2. We point out something about the person (unrelated to X)
  3. We reject X based on 2

Now I am sure that there must be subtle variations and such, but the bottom line is we reject an argument someone makes based on some quality of the person, without really addressing the argument. So in Jenny’s case we have the following:

  1. Jenny argues that vaccines have toxins that are dangerous to children.
  2. We point out that Jenny uses Botox on herself

So where does that leave us? Well as both Tom and I have said, it depends on the context. The 3rd requirement for the Ad Hominem (therefore Jenny is wrong about toxins in vaccines) hasn’t been said in actual words. I maintain that when 1 & 2 are used together they imply, regardless of what the author may or may not desire to imply, that Jenny is wrong about 1, in certain cases based on the context. I specifically linked to a blog entry by Phil Plait that used the whole Jenny-Botox thing that I thought was a case where the implication was there hovering in the air, even if Phil may not have meant it that way. Go, read that entry yourself, and decide if I am right or wrong.

Now can the fact that she uses Botox be used in an argument in ways which would make it not an Ad Hominem? Sure it can, and Tom formulates examples himself, which are not the formulations I’m having an issue with anyway, but as he himself says it is still a personal attack, which adds nothing to the conversation. It is a poor tool to use in a public debate anyway (she can easily counter with “what does that have to do with vaccines? So I am misinformed about Botox, but I’m not here to discuss Botox, which is used by adults, but the health and safety of our children; so stop attacking my personal life style choices.“) in which case you’ve already lost the public opinion war, and you will be perceived as an arrogant person trying to belittle a mom who’s fighting for her son’s, and other children’s, wellbeing. Try explaining then that what you did was not an ad hominem attack.

If you think that facts and statistics are too dry, do you think that discussing in detail what is and what isn’t, philosophically speaking, a proper ad-hominem, would be more…wet for lack of proper terms, if what you’re trying to accomplish is to win the public’s hearts and minds?